A wizard, a paladin, a cleric, a fighter, and a gnome have just begun a perilous journey. The group, meandering on horseback, approaches the edge of a ransacked village, a harbinger of things to come. But this isn’t their first voyage together. And it doesn’t take long for this ragtag bunch of mythical beings to stumble upon their first obstacle: A pack of wolves fighting a group of orcs.
This may sound like the plot of a new fantasy film. But in reality, this gathering of otherworldly creatures is a group of twenty-somethings gathered around the kitchen table. For many, the monotonous early days of the pandemic were a time filled with new hobbies, projects and general escapism. In Sitka, the role playing game Dungeons and Dragons offered a handful of young people their own fantasy laden escape.
This particular group comes together every weekend to play the fantasy based game. Last year its popularity surged in Sitka due, at least in part, to the pandemic. But Friday nights in this house aren’t about reality — they’re about testing the limits of your imagination. And as TJ Witherspoon found out, when you’re stuck inside for weeks on end, there’s not much else to do.
“My in-person D&D play really took off last year. I had a small bubble of people. And I was like, ‘You guys. We’re like, the only people we all hang out with, we should try playing D&D.’ And then we’ve played almost every week for the last 30 weeks,” says Witherspoon, chuckling.
Like many Sitkans, Witherspoon didn’t start his D&D career until adulthood.
“I woke up one morning and a high school friend of mine, who I hadn’t seen for years, sent me a message on Google Hangouts. It just said, ‘You are a druid named Sundar, and you are in the forest, what do you do?'” recalls Witherspoon.
“It was just like a cold call, just him and I, and it was awesome,” he says.
Now Witherspoon is the “DM” or Dungeon Master for one local group. That means he’s in charge of leading what are known as campaigns, building the imaginary worlds his friends traverse while playing the game.
“If some of my players enter a tavern, I provide them the name of the barkeep. I provide them the name of the tavern. I describe what the inside looks like. The campaign is just that story being told from start to finish,” says Witherspoon.
Once the Dungeon Master sets the scene, players decide how the characters they create get from point A to point B, using their magical powers. For D&D newcomer, Adam Lechowicz this means for a few hours each week, he’s Gorb the gnome.
“He is two foot one inch tall. He is a bard. Bald on top with like, curly wild hair on the sides. He’s a very grumpy man,” explains Lechowicz. “And his end goal in the game is to kill the Phoenix which is like the big boss for our session.”
Remember the epic battle between the orcs and the wolves at the beginning of this story? Well Gorb actually saved the day by casting a spell called “stinking cloud” with his enchanted flute.
For Lechowicz the creativity and imagination involved in playing, made D&D a great way spend an abundance of cold, rainy weekends inside.
“My brain is basically like creating a whole world where I can join in. Obviously, TJ is my DM is a very important part in that, but it’s all in your head and imagination,” he explains.
Although D&D picked up steam during the height of the pandemic, with another COVID winter looming in Sitka, Witherspoon says its popularity shows no signs of slowing.
“It definitely feels like since we’ve all been cooped up, the DMs have come out of the woodwork and been like, ‘Hey, I have these stories that we could be telling together.’ And we have almost nothing else to do,” says Witherspoon.
Artemis Klejka, a commercial fisherperson in Sitka, is one of those people. She’s preparing to be a Dungeon Master for the first time.
“It’s funny,” Klejka says. “I didn’t really know how much of a D&D following existed in Sitka, and now I’m quickly seeing like, Oh, lots of people either interested or playing it already.”
“It’s something I played a lot of in college that I found was a ton of fun, especially on days when you didn’t feel like going out in the weather. It’s just a really great group activity,” she says.
Klejka hopes to get her group off the ground in the new year. She’s ready to mine her own imagination for the the next great fantasy. In its simplest form Dungeons and Dragons is a role playing game, but on a deeper level it taps into our intrinsic love of storytelling.
In a time when the real world seems chaotic and even scary, sometimes the only antidote is rolling a six and casting a stinking cloud to make your problems disappear.
Disclosure: Adam Lechowicz now works as KCAW’s operations director.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correctly describe Dungeons and Dragons as a “role-playing game” rather than a “live-action role playing game.” Adam Lechowicz, who was interviewed for this story in November, now works as KCAW’s operations director.